Talk about your pillow fights. Talk about your anticlimaxes. Senate hearings on the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court made for slow going and sluggish television yesterday, all the advance hype about fireworks and histrionics notwithstanding.
Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, does not run a tight ship. Maybe it will get tighter as the hearings proceed. But you could almost hear the network news departments twiddling their thumbs not long after they signed on at 2:30 p.m., having forgone a largely ceremonial morning session.
That hothead liberal Biden was so sweet and polite to that wildcat conservative Bork that a ballyhooed sparring session came off more like a waltz. When Bork began his opening statement by asking to introduce his family, Biden groveled and toadied and said, oh but of course, I meant to invite you to do that, please proceed, by all means, our casa is su casa, blah blah blah.
Thank goodness for Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Teddy delivered a "scathing" greeting to Bork in the morning, Dan Rather reported; unfortunately, CBS declined to air it, or to reprise it prior to the afternoon session. Then, finally, at about 5 p.m., it was Kennedy's turn to question Bork, and he did so skillfully and relentlessly, at times even threatening to fluster the assured and articulate nominee.
Kennedy grilled Bork on his record and jostled Bork to the point where Bork was willing to admit having made "an intellectual mistake" when he wrote articles attacking civil rights legislation for The New Republic and the Chicago Tribune. The give-and-take was electric and instructive. This was what, it seemed, a confirmation hearing should be.
Kennedy was by far, as the TV camera revealed, the best-dressed and the best-coiffed person on the committee. Bork, for all his erudition and renown, looks scraggly and rumpled. If he can't grow a better beard than that, one wonders, why does he wear one at all? Ah well. Yale professors are entitled to their eccentricities.
Other than Kennedy's interrogation, the only other real highlight was a recurring colloquy -- practically a fixation -- on the relationship of jurisprudence to the use of contraceptives by married couples behind closed bedroom doors. Bork, in his response to Biden's probing about a Connecticut sex law that the Supreme Court overturned, made a reference to "competing gratification," which was about as graphic as the imagery got.
Another possible highlight: a shot of Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) that gave the impression he had fallen asleep. No one could blame him.
As soon as Kennedy finished, administration patsy Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) came forward, and the networks shot out of that hearing room in a flash. ABC News had already ended its coverage; CBS and NBC bolted when Hatch began his lavish Bork defense, singing the same tune he did at the Rehnquist hearings, claiming that Bork's "record is being distorted" by "unfair" opponents using "inflammatory rhetoric" and other satanic ploys.
Hatch rattled on about Bork being limited to "30-second bites" for answers to complex legal questions, prompting Biden to interrupt and ask Bork if he felt he'd been restricted in any way. Bork said no, but added that he did feel an obligation to a questioner "not to bog him down with long answers."
"Go ahead and bog him down," said Biden. He told Bork he could take an hour to answer a single question if he wanted to. "Do not feel at all constrained," Biden said. "Use as much time as you want," he continued.
Biden did everything but rush over to Bork's water glass with an ice-cold refill.
When it comes to bogging down, of course, senators don't need any help. Hatch, whose spiel proceeded on CNN and PBS (both offering complete coverage), plunged forward with his defensive and slightly pixilated crusade.
"As a matter of fact," Hatch said to Bork, after a string of encomiums to his judicial majesty, "I don't see how anybody watching this could doubt that you're an eminent scholar with a brilliant mind, who is in the mainstream of judicial life, who in sitting in more than 400 cases on the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has never been reversed, who has been within the mainstream with his liberal colleagues on the courts, if that's an appropriate term, as you have with your conservative colleagues and . . ."
On it went from there, twisting and turning and doubling back. It may be going on still. But Hatch didn't have a monopoly on talking much and saying little. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), in a so-called opening statement, did so much strenuous meandering as to lose even the most adoringly attentive listener. It seemed only a matter of moments before he absent-mindedly lapsed into French like Melvyn Douglas in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan."
Perhaps the real contest of the long day was, who could be slipperier, Biden or Bork? And who could be more unctuous to the other? "Bork and Biden" was a kind of TV successor to "Mork and Mindy." Maybe the gloves will come off as the hearings go on. But Biden is running for president and against his image as a loose cannon. So instead of Ali and Frazier, one gets Alphonse and Gaston.
The networks were appalled. They had billed this as the biggest battle since Oliver North met Arthur Liman. Correspondent Deborah Potter on CBS, interviewing senators during a break, noted that the hearings had been "a little dull" and "a little dry." Even Rather, normally tireless in his enthusiasms, allowed later as how there'd been "very extended dull periods in the afternoon."
Rather also told correspondent Bruce Morton, earlier, that the participants in the hearings had been "throwing case names around like confetti," but CBS News, and some others, thoughtfully provided slides summarizing cases and popped them up when they were mentioned in testimony.
How much time the networks will give the rest of the hearings is up in the air. Biden in his zeal to look reasonable and fair (after publicly prejudging Bork) has taken much of the expected drama out of the hearings, and drama is what TV wants, and what it has led the audience to expect. However he's doing as an "eminent scholar" and a convincing nominee to the court, as a new continuing character in television's pantheon of superstars, Bork's balked.